The U.S. immigration system is in crisis, overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in border detentions—144,278 in May alone, the highest number in more than a decade. The New York Times reported last week that detention facilities are severely overcrowded and children often sleep on concrete floors with the lights on all night. Kids as young as 7 years old don’t have access to soap or toothbrushes, and many have not been able to wash their clothes or shower since they were detained. But for all the justified anger and concern over conditions north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the humanitarian crisis unfolding to the south may be even more dire.
The increase in detentions is due to a surge in Central American asylum-seekers—mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—who are fleeing poverty and gang violence. Most of them cross Mexico’s southern border illegally and make their way north to the U.S., where they apply for asylum. After President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports earlier this month, Mexico agreed to send Mexican National Guard troops to the border with Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants. Mexico also agreed to host more asylum-seekers while U.S. courts process their claims, and to offer them jobs, health care, and education. If illegal immigration is not curbed to the satisfaction of the United States within 45 days, the White House says, further action will be taken. This will most likely include designating Mexico as a “safe third country,” meaning that Central American immigrants who are seeking refugee status will have to request asylum in Mexico, rather than the U.S., and stay there if their requests are granted.
Both Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke of this deal as if it were a major accomplishment: Mexico avoided potentially crippling tariffs (for now), and Trump appeared tough on immigration as he launched his reelection campaign. But this immigration agreement is far from a long-term solution, and it will likely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that is already unfolding.
According to Red TDT, a network of 87 human rights organizations in Mexico, migrants crossing Mexico’s southern border in recent months have faced an increase in violent detentions, family separations, and racist and xenophobic attitudes on the Mexican side. There are also countless reports of extortion and abuse by federal authorities. There is no reason to believe that the presence of the National Guard, which was only created in March of this year and is composed mostly of former members of the military and Federal Police officers, will improve the situation.
“The militarization of the border results in the systemic violation of human rights,” said Alexandra Lestón, the coordinator of the structural change unit at La 72, an immigrant shelter in the border town of Tenosique, in the southern state of Tabasco. “Extortion and robbery by the federal authorities has become very common. … Persecution [by the authorities] forces people to travel at night, through dark and remote places, which exposes them to more crime.”
La 72 is located about 40 miles from the border with Guatemala. Migrants who cross from Guatemala by foot have to walk for three days to reach the shelter. “They’re exposed to everything on their way here,” said Lestón. “Kidnapping, rape, sexual violence, homicide.”
Deportations from Mexico to Central America have tripled since December, as reported last month by the Spanish daily El País. In April, close to 15,000 migrants were deported, the highest monthly deportation rate in three years. “They have no rights,” said Lestón. “They have no access to health care, unless they’re dying. They have no access to legal counsel. The authorities are supposed to give them some basic information about how to request refugee status, but they almost never do.”
On Mexico’s northern border, the increase in Remain in Mexico deportations is also very concerning. “I think that we are looking at the very real possibility of a huge problem in the north of Mexico,” said Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “All of these people being returned to Mexico … where are they going to be housed? How are they going to be employed? Where are the children going to be educated? How will they receive medical attention? You have all kinds of problems that could come from that.”
Currently, asylum-seekers who make it to the U.S. through Mexico are only being deported to three Mexican border cities: Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Piedras Negras. According to Pedro Gerson, an immigration lawyer at the Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit in New York City, the increase in Remain in Mexico deportations could go up from 20 per day to up to 1,000. “Assume that it ends up being half of that. Imagine that they send 500 people back to Mexico every day,” he said. “In two months, you’ll have 30,000 people in three cities that do not have the capacity to absorb them.”
Jose María García, the founder and director of Juventud 2000, an immigrant shelter in Tijuana, echoed Gerson’s concern. He explained that these cities are already hosting four types of immigrants: Mexicans from poorer or more dangerous parts of the country, Central Americans who arrive from the south of Mexico, Central Americans who have been returned from the U.S. while their asylum claims are processed, and Mexicans who are deported from the United States. “We could have problems with overpopulation at any moment now,” said García.
Migrants in the north of Mexico are also often victims of crime and face increasing xenophobia. According to a recent poll conducted by El Universal, a Mexican newspaper, 61.5 percent of Mexicans said they agreed the government should stop undocumented migrants from entering the country, up from 48.9 percent in October. That same poll found that 44.4 percent of Mexicans think the government should immediately expel undocumented immigrants, up from 27.6 percent in that same time period. “I’ve been robbed twice,” said Carmen, a 32-year-old woman from El Salvador who made the journey north to Tijuana about five months ago and is awaiting an asylum hearing in the U.S. “They don’t treat us well when we’re walking down the street. We get called a lot of things. They insult us: ‘Immigrant.’ ‘Go back to your country.’ ”
The situation could potentially get a lot worse. “Perhaps the worst problem is that organized crime is going to look at this [as an] incredibly vulnerable population to be preyed upon and probably recruited as well,” said Wood. “So I think that this is self-harm by Mexico, unless they’ve got a plan to redistribute the population throughout the country.”
If such a plan exists, it is hard to imagine how it could be executed. The budget of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute was slashed by 23 percent in 2019, down to $68 million, and 720 jobs in the agency were eliminated. The office in charge of processing asylum visas, called COMAR, has a budget of roughly $10 million. For perspective, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have a combined budget of roughly $24 billion.
“As much as Mexico is willing to say, ‘OK, we’ll do what the U.S. says,’ it can’t follow through, it doesn’t have the capacity to do that,” said Wood. “I think they will get a reprieve during the summer that might allow both sides to say, ‘Hey, this worked.’ But in the fall, the numbers will pick up again. … The [migrant] flows are going to continue to happen as long as Central Americans are desperate to get out of their countries.”